A Winter’s Night Atop Mount Pilatus

Unable to resist its lure, one writer makes a journey up Switzerland’s mythical mountain in the less crowded winter.


Mount Pilatus turns more magical when the day trippers depart.

Photo by Pongpinun Traisrisilp/Shutterstock

Mired in myth and legend and rising nearly 7,000 feet above Lucerne, Mount Pilatus has lured dragon slayers, adventure seekers, politicians, and even royalty. I’ve fallen victim to its siren song on cobalt blue December afternoons on multiple occasions, when visitors are few and serenity and solitude speak volumes.

Frankly, the Pilatus massif offers far more to do in summer. That’s when summit wildflowers bloom, ibex are more easily sighted, and midmountain adventure parks promise rope courses, an Alpine slide, zip lines, and treetop thrills. But winter, when only snowshoe and ski tracks left by intrepid adventurers mar the summit snow, offers unique appeals, especially for those who spend the night. Among the allures that seduced me: the quietude of a snow-laden mountain, the warmth of a comfy hotel, the satisfaction of a fine meal, the vividness of a sunset, the joy of spectacular stargazing, and the glories of a stunning sunrise.

Even though I knew inclement weather might cloud the views, I booked an overnight stay in the Hotel Pilatus-Kulm as the coda to an Alpine skiing trip. Unlike Queen Victoria, who rode a mule to the summit, I opted for modern transportation. During warmer months, one can cruise Lake Lucerne to Alpnachstad and ride the world’s steepest cog railway to the saddle between two of the massif’s peaks, 6,906-foot Oberhaupt and 6,949-foot Esel. But in winter, one flies to this terrace via a two-stage gondola and an aerial tram.

From Lucerne’s train station, it’s a 12-minute bus ride to the Zentrum Pilatus stop in Kriens. On that mid-December afternoon, I strolled from there to the Pilatus base station and stepped into a gondola car. As it ascended, the views opened, the early-winter browns surrendered to increasingly larger patches of seasonal white, and dense vegetation ceded to barren Alpine terrain.

Then Pilatus began to work its magic.

The late-day sun slipped behind mountains, replaced by a rosy alpenglow and twilight’s blue hour, accented with a silver sliver of a crescent moon. Striated skies ranging from tonal blues to salmon hues were the backdrop for the neo-Gothic Klimsen Chapel, edging a cliff below Klimsenhorn’s 6,253-foot cross-topped peak.

I arrived at the tram’s top station as the last day-trippers departed and the sun’s last rays illuminated the Bellevue, the other hotel bookending the saddle’s balcony on the world. I ping-ponged from side to side on the summit terrace, smitten by smoky skies, snow-laden peaks, and dragon-puff clouds over Lake Lucerne far below. Legend has it that centuries ago, fire-breathing, long-necked dragons with poisonous fangs resided on the summit. Tales of those who fought the beasts or were saved by them are shared in the Dragon Trail, a tunnel with interpretive signage edging around the Oberhaupt peak.

According to another tale, the tortured soul of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who presided over the trial of Jesus Christ, found its final resting spot in a long-gone mountain lake. Some say that it gave the mountain its name; others believe it’s derived from the Latin word pileatus, meaning capped because clouds settle over it. I pondered the stories while admiring the heavenly views revealed through craggy openings cut into the tunnel’s outer wall.

Overlooked by the cross-topped Oberhaupt peak, the three-star Superior Hotel Pilatus-Kulm, dating from 1890, appears almost fortress-like from the terrace. Yet inside it’s cozy and comfortable. When the hotel is busy, dinner is served in the grand dining room, but I ate in a less formal room where the more casual breakfast buffet is served.

Afterward, I bundled up for the chill, stepped out on the terrace to take in the star-spangled night, and noticed a trail zigzagging up the cross-topped peak behind the hotel. Unable to resist the mountain’s temptation, I began hiking for a better view. About halfway up the occasionally snowy path, I realized how stupid the impulse was. And yet, I continued: My white-knuckled grip on the rails and ropes lining the way was the only thing between me and a death slide. With only the whoosh of wind breaking the hush of night, I inhaled the summit panorama. Lucerne’s lights twinkled distantly and white peaks glowed in the moonlight. When a shooting star raced across the sky, I reached toward heaven, experienced a sense of awe and grace, and prayed for a glorious sunrise.

Awakening early to steel-gray skies, I repeated the hike in the predawn light. Again, I had Pilatus to myself. As the sun rose, the sky’s smoky lavender-hued blues reflected in Lake Lucerne’s waters. I looked down to spy the Klimsen Chapel, up at the summit cross, and watched Alpine choughs, crow-like birds with yellow beaks and orange feet, perform an acrobatic ballet. Then one of Pilatus’s mythical dragons crept to the mouth of its subterranean lair and exhaled brilliant orange and gold flames into the sky.

Maine-based Hilary Nangle has written for many publications including AARP, Snow, Ski, Westways, and Yankee. She’s also the author of four Moon-series guidebooks to her home state: Maine, Coastal Maine, Acadia National Park, and the forthcoming Best of Acadia National Park.
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